You’ve asked a guy who makes his living advancing the ethics of killing and war to help launch a Christian classical school library. Fair warning: you’re going to get a certain kind of thing out of that.
Now, I was recruited to talk about my first book, with the attractively hard-to-resist title, The Good Kill: Just War & Moral Injury. But I don’t really want to do that! Having been a kid who spent a good deal of his childhood with his face in printed pages, I think I have waited all my life to help open a library. And so I want to talk about books more generally than just about my own—and particularly about the way that books can help morally form our sons and daughters into the kinds of men and women they were made by God to be.
Happily—Semper Gumby—there turns out to be a rather straightforward way to do both.
I want to begin with a picture.
In previous writings, I’ve made much of a particular painting that can be found in room 58 of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London. I mean the undercelebrated Venus and Mars by renaissance master Sandro Botticelli. The paintingportrays the post-coital deities reclining opposite one another in a little wood and surrounded by a small fold of frolicsome satyrs. If you look at any number of commentaries on the painting—including, sadly, the National Gallery’s own website—you’ll see that the work is typically taken to symbolize the platitude that love conquers war.
Admittedly, the pair’s immediate presentation seems to bear this out: Venus, goddess of love, is clothed and awake, watching Mars, the war god. Mars is naked and very much asleep, unarmed and unarmored—seemingly captive by the Venerian fetters of what was called “the little death”, the post-orgasmic ebbing or weakening of consciousness that in the Renaissance mind was likened to the loss of life. On the surface, war indeed seems overthrown by love.
Now, you should know that I find this kind of platitude trite and obnoxious. In our increasingly maudlin world—even and especially within the Christian world—love is overly sentimentalized, sanitized. Too often, we see love in simple opposition to such things as conflict, confrontation, judgment, rebuke, and restraint—including the restraint of war. These things, we think, can only be the antithesis or absence of love, not its manifestation, in the last resort, under certain circumstances.
This is by no means an entirely modern problem. You’ll find the same thing in great theologians such as Martin Luther, in moral exemplars such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in Christian realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr, the great 20th century public intellectual who, almost alone, shepherded US mainline churches into supporting American entry into the war against Hitlerism and Japanese militarism. These three men are particularly interesting cases in that they each believed, ultimately, that belligerence—including killing in war—might sometimes be the right thing to do, but that it remained, at all times, sinful. Here we connect to my book.
I took my motivation for The Good Kill from the fact that war wounds the soul. It is not only the violence that warfighters suffer that harms them, but also—sometimes especially—the violence that they do. Most people are familiar with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Fewer, perhaps, are aware of a sub-set of PTSD that has come to be called moral injury. These are soul wounds—or psychic traumas—that come from doing or allowing to be done something that goes against a deeply held moral norm. It shouldn’t be surprising that moral injury can occur following the committing of an atrocity or even the accidental killing of the innocent. The problem is that many warfighters at least tacitly follow the commonplace belief that killing another human being is always wrong—it’s just that, sometimes, as in a justified war, it is necessary. You should see here the juxtaposition of love and responsibility I’ve pointed to previously. Killing is wrong—because we should love. In a justified war it is necessary—because we should be responsible, say, in protecting the innocent from attack.
The problem with this problem, is that it leads to a crisis. Clinical research with combat veterans has established a link between having killed in combat and combat veteran suicide. The number one predictor of moral injury, it seems, is having killed in combat, including the killing of lawful enemies killed within the confines of the Laws of War and the constraints of the just war tradition. Further, the number one predictor for suicide among veterans is moral injury. Too many combat veterans who have served honorably and with the right intentions are dying by their own hands—casualties of war long after battle has ended.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As part of a larger means of addressing moral injury, my book presents the just war tradition as a moral framework—flowing out of the Greco-Roman and Hebraic intellectual traditions—that can allow our warfighters to better understand the morality of war and to think more properly about the business of killing. In doing so I help reassert (b/c it’s always been there) a Christian understanding of the unity of love and justice, or love and responsibility, or, indeed, the unity of love and war. Here we can return to the Botticelli.
While initial appearances would seem to support that trite, sentimental, and maudlin love-conquers-war reading of the painting, any prolonged consideration should begin to render this interpretation unsatisfying. My own suspicions that Botticelli was up to something else deepened upon learning that a facsimile of Botticelli’s masterwork hung in C.S. Lewis’ Oxford rooms in Magdalen College. Lewis was self-confessedly unenthusiastic about paintings in general. This is evidence by the mostly unadorned walls in his office and home. Indeed, a very young Lewis once confessed that he had walked around the National Gallery and found little to his liking – except for the singular exception of Venus and Mars. It can scarcely be believed that Lewis, hardly one to stomach simplistic aphorisms, would include among the few paintings for which he cared one bearing a theme so saccharine.
So how to explain his approval? I think there can be found within Lewis’ writings a pair of explanatory keys.
The first comes from a letter Lewis wrote to a friend in which cosmology came into discussion: “In a certain juncture of the planets,” Lewis mused, “each planet may play the others’ part.” Turning back to Botticelli, this suggestion has some purchase. Mars has lost much of the martial aspect. Dispossessed of his armor and his lance—euphemistically unmanned—he is defenseless as he slumbers almost fully exposed.
Venus, however, appears to have taken up the martial character. She may not be merely watching Mars but watching over him as well: she has acquired her lover’s helm and lance, which thanks to the satyrs have now been visually repositioned so as to suggest she is wielding them. Truly, each does seem to now be playing the other’s part.
But the reversal is incomplete. Venus is still Venus, evidenced not simply by the sated repose of her lover but by her own continued physical beauty—a beauty delicately eroticized by her diaphanous gown, which not only teasingly hints at the comely form beneath, but which she happens to be presently drawing up her leg. One can see the folds of garment just beginning to gather beneath her fingers as she pulls. Precisely what Venus has in mind is speculative, of course, but it might be suggested by the satyr who appears about to wake Mars with a conch shell blast in his ear. The facts of the garment drawing up her leg and Mars’ imminent rousing (not to say arousal) are surely connected.
Mars, for his part, is still recognizably the war god: well-muscled—at least for the Renaissance—his strength remains at hand, however immediately latent. Indeed, his very nakedness, while at one level suggesting vulnerability, was in the Renaissance imagination a sign that he was in total control even when most vulnerable. It’s worth pointing out that the blowing of the conch shell plays into this idea. The ancient Romans believed the peaceful dormancy of the God of War could be interrupted by ritual incantation. As Roman warriors entered the battlefield, their warlord might shout “Mars vigilia”—“Mars, awaken!” Thus stirred, the war god would lead the Romans to victory.
To account for Venus and Mars resilient self-possession even as they have taken on one another’s attributes, we now bring into play Lewis’ second explanatory key. In a critical analysis of The Faerie Queene, Lewis describes how Renaissance depictions of inverted relationships in images of cosmic order were meant to convey not a triumph of one over the other, but rather mutual reconciliation. This idea of reconciliation is borne out—literally—in the name of Venus’ and Mars’ most noteworthy offspring, their daughter Concordia—the personification of harmony, unity, accord, peace.
Venus and Mars—love and war—embrace and reform one another in mutual self-giving without either annihilating the other. And the result is peace. Now this idea is something with which Lewis could truck.
The idea—this unity of Venus and Mars—is also what’s behind Lewis’ deep commitment to the chivalric idea of “the knight – the Christian in arms for the defence of a good cause.” Lewis called chivalry “one of the great Christian ideas.” For Lewis, this chivalric ideal, in turn, is best understood through those words addressed to the dead Launcelot, the greatest of all the knights, in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur: ‘Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe.’ In his wonderful, “The Necessity of Chivalry” Lewis expounds:
The important thing about this ideal is…the double-demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maiden-like guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.
Writing at the beginning of the Second World War, Lewis found the chivalric ideal to be terribly relevant: “It may or may not be practicable,” he admitted. “The Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it – but it is certainly practical; practical as the fact that men in a desert must find water or die.” The key, Lewis insisted, was in remembering the knight “is a work not of nature but of art; of that art which has human beings, instead of canvas or marble, for its medium.” Chivalry attempted to bring together two things that since the fall of humanity have no natural tendency to gravitate toward one another: it teaches “humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually needed the lesson” and it demands “valor of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was as likely as not to be a milksop.”
The danger, as Lewis saw it, was that if we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections: those who can deal in blood and iron but…know nothing about mercy and kill men as they cry for quarter, and “those who are ‘meek in hall’ but useless in battle.” That’s the hopeless choice. Both those who lack mercy and those who lack courage are moral failures.
Ok. Now how do I bridge from that to the launching of a Christian classical school library? If I grok the vocation of this place properly, then I would be right in understanding that classical education has at its heart the cultivation of human beings. Here, analogous to the absence of canvass or marble in the art of chivalry, Rockbridge Academy’s act of cultivation does not have as its object gardens or croplands, but the minds and souls of our children.
As with the best of medieval moral thought, classical education has as its hinterlands the Greco-Roman and Hebraic traditions that have fortified the West since its inception. Grounded in piety, governed and kept on azimuth by theology, a proper classical education is a means of preparing our children for, among much else, being human beings. One way a classical education does this is through an encounter with great books—great books, and, therefore, the great ideas that have shaped, that continue to shape, and that are just beginning to shape our world.
Importantly, however, reading great books has never been its own justification. A classical education always had a purpose – to cultivate the humanity of boys and girls so that they grow into men and women who have been taught how to flourish. The early chapters of the Hebrew bible remind us that being human means that we have been made in the image of God. A part of what that means is that we have been given the responsibility to exercise dominion over all the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, over the lions, and the tigers, and the bears…
Dominion isn’t domination – it isn’t merely martial assertion. Dominion is the exercise of providential care—as God’s viceregents—over creation. To care for something means we desire to see it flourish—for it to be happy. But things—including human beings—cannot simply flourish in any old way. Genuine human happiness can only be found when we answer the vocation for which we were made. There is a very narrow moral ecology in which human beings can do so. A part of dominion—a part of Christian responsibility in and to our world—is, as Paul makes clear in Romans, to help bring about the conditions that make flourishing—or as close an approximation of it as we can have in this world—possible.
Like the knight, becoming a human being is no longer a work of simply nature. It, too, has become a work of art—of intentional human creative activity pursued in deference to the realities of what is true, and beautiful, and good and reliant, all the while, on Grace. This is because, since the fall of humanity, boys and girls have no unhindered tendency to become human beings on their own. There’s more that ought to be said then can be said in a modest library opening, but suffice it to say, for now, that becoming a human being includes the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.
Wisdom, we remember from St. Aquinas, is knowing how to properly order things and to render proper judgements between unlike things such as right and wrong, good and evil, truth and lies, and the like.
Virtues are those moral excellences by which we might manifest our rightly ordered loves in the performance of right action, in the right way, at the right time, in the right amount, toward the right person, and for the right reason.
As Lewis reminds us in The Abolition of Man, Aristotle says that very purpose of education is to make the student like and dislike what he ought. If the pagan origins are bit too suspect, St. Paul puts it this way – abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.
And here we come, at last, to books.
Supposedly, Albert Einstein once said: “If you want your children to be intelligent read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” A good library, paired with an education aimed at making human beings, can put books—the right books—in the hands of those who are learning to love what they ought to love. Such as these therefore have as good a chance as any, and better than most, of creating emotional attachments to goodness and of cultivating a taste for truth and beautiful things. Plato, Lewis reminded us, asserted that children “must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.” Moreover, in books children can find examples—historical or fictional—of those moral exemplars who live in good, true, and beautiful ways. Such exemplars are not always easy to find in today’s mass media, daily news, and popular culture. Some stories are full of them.
I want to be cautious here, lest I come under Lewis’ wrath. Lewis was careful to not reduce the reading of great books to merely extracting moral lessons. The real value of reading great books includes that but is more capacious—indeed, it is more generous. It is generous in the sense that we do not only read those safe books that we know will serve merely to confirm what we know—or believe—to be good, true, and beautiful. Instead, our reading ought to include voices and views very much unlike our own. He put it this way:
Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face thins present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.
Lewis understood there could be risks to this and so raised the serious question: “What then is the good of—what is even the defense for…entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our person?” His answer was precisely this enlargement of being. A “man who lived in many places,” he suggested, “is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village” nor, he would add, by those errors made in foreign lands. In books, vicarious experience becomes a personal resource. “In reading great literature,” Lewis insisted, “I become a thousand men yet remain myself.” This ability to encounter other human views is essential if we are to continue to live in a pluralistic society without destroying one another.
The Nazis sometimes found it was difficult to get good Germans to turn against Jews they knew by name. To know another’s story, to understand their loves, is a means of building empathy. There is, at present, an effort among some conservative Christians to wage war against winsomeness. To be sure, the desire to be winsome can be taken by some to mean that we ought to set aside orthodox belief in order to be more attractive to those who do not subscribe to our orthodoxy. This is a temptation that ought, of course, to be mortified. But winsome can simply be another word for being charitable—loving—which simply means that we communicate and defend orthodoxy in ways that ought to at least be accessible and well received by those of good intention who nevertheless disagree with us. Of course, not everyone who disagrees with us has good intentions. For them, there is little we can do. But, because true moral monsters are few, it will usually prove hard to really hate those we have taken the time to try and understand. This will not mean we do not resist them—indeed, in extremis, I hold we can love our enemies even to death.
This, then, is the final and perhaps greatest worth of great books. “Real life is too vast and too varied for more than a small part of it to be experienced by any one man or woman,” wrote British judge and historian Jonathan Sumption. “We need several lives,” he continued in lament, “but we are given only one.” However, story—Sumption said “history”—enables “us to understand many things about humankind that we cannot hope to experience personally. Of course, its value would be very limited if we were all that different from our ancestors.” It is this discover of similarity in the midst of our difference that helps us to build empathy with those with whom we sometimes contend even as we confirm for ourselves that we continue to prefer our own understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful. In books, Lewis concluded, “as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
I don’t want to idealize any of this. No matter how wonderful libraries are, they are insufficient. When Kara and I lived in Central Europe, the crew we worked with was fond of recalling that, at one point in history, Karl Marx sat in a library—reading books—in Chetham, England. He was busily working on ideas that would change the world. Wide reading is not a guaranteed remedy against a narrow mind or shallow soul. But good ideas are the best remedy against bad. We can a cue from the old Dr Who episode “You want weapons?” asked Dr. Who while trapped in room full of books in yet another precarious situation. “We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!”
“The lesson of history,” Lewis reminded us, “is that civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty, and easily lost.” I’m heartened that classical schools exist, that my kids attend one, and that my wife teaches there. I’m glad for its restorative vocation, how it both preserves and transmits the greatest works—old and new—that have informed, reshaped, and maintained Western culture through the ages. It’s crucial, for in order to preserve that which is good, and true, and beautiful, our children will need to be properly armed – they will need to be given the intellectual resources to be orthodox, dogmatic even, and yet to be so chivalrously. The proliferation of great books in this space will help with the incredibly important task of transmitting from one generation to another the good, true, and beautiful things around which human beings are best formed. In easy days, this transmission of good, true, and beautiful things is comparatively simple. In bad days, it is difficult. In the worst of days, it is nearly impossible.
To close, the sentiments found in Botticelli’s masterpiece are present there only because it was a product of a culture that still acknowledged her Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian patrimony. But this is an inheritance now persistently disclaimed – we no longer believe in those foundations in which our best beliefs are anchored. As we abandon ourselves, the unity of Venus and Mars is increasingly divorced. As this happens, we will be left with those who are either simply combative and rapacious or those who are full of idealistic and sentimental gas.
These same, tawdry alternatives of either “brutality or softness” were present in Lewis’ day as well. They were insufficient then. They are insufficient now. As Lewis warned: “The ideal embodied in Launcelot is…the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable.”
In a world such as our own, Lewis’ closing comments in his reflection on the necessity of chivalry is ominous: “There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century,” he mused, “that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural selection; but this seems to have been exaggerated.”
My hope is that this library may serve as an storehouse of ideas—an arsenal of good, true, and beautiful things—so that those who roam these shelves and then go out into the wide world have no need to be afraid of big, bad wolves.